Can Jerry and Stephen break the 8-8 cycle?
The Dallas Cowboys have entered into yet another crucial offseason in their quest to rid themselves of the mediocre label. But after nearly two decades of playing .500 football, the biggest question in the minds of many is just how do the Cowboys reverse this trend?
For one thing, there isn't a lack of talent on this roster as it stands today, but it's easy to conclude that the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.
In the context of the 2013 season, the defense was most definitely the weakest link of this franchise.
The more troubling aspect of this offseason will be yet another round of financial constraints, impending contract restructurings and hard-pressed decisions surrounding some of the veterans who are not getting it done anymore.
So while we wait on the first answer to stepping out of mediocrity, part of the solution will entail Jerry and Stephen Jones doing some financial housekeeping. Heck, maybe a little urgency would go a long way here so that the Cowboys at least have a shot at adding a few free agents.
But, then again, this is Jerry's world, and he only has to answer to the man staring back at him. Free agency is probably the least favorable area to look at when addressing the Cowboys' needs, so the draft is a more likely source of logic and reason.
The deficiencies on defense immediately jump out at you when analyzing this club—failed eyeball tests corroborated by truly dreadful statistics make addressing that side of the ball a no-brainer.
But don't let this roster fool you. There are needs everywhere.
Let's take a look.
The Cowboys must improve the defensive line right across the board. They need players to provide pressure from the interior of the line and from the ends. Failure to upgrade this area of the roster would be catastrophic, but properly addressing the position would also help out the secondary as well.
The key here for Dallas is to identify playmakers and players who can effectively and consistently rush the passer, cause havoc in the backfield and chase down ball-carriers. It won't be easy, and the players with the highest impact will be off the board, but the focus has to remain firm.
Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer are both free agents, DeMarcus Ware suffered through another disappointing, injury-plagued season, and the depth leaves little to be desired. This franchise cannot rely on Jarius Wynn, Everette Brown or Corvey Irvin if they are serious about winning.
The Cowboys recorded 34 sacks in 2013, which is their lowest total since 2006. Monte Kiffin's scheme prides itself on takeaways, but sacks and tackles for loss are the momentum-changing plays that this team needs.
Players such as Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Pittburgh's Aaron Donald and Arizona State's Will Sutton are prospects who can provide strength on the interior of the line.
Stanford's Trent Murphy, Oregon's Scott Chrichton and North Carolina's Kareem Martin would be defensive ends who can step in and start from day one. Whichever direction the Cowboys go in to address this position will probably be determined by the ranking of their draft board.
But no matter what, a major reconstruction job looms.
Barry Church needs a running mate back in the Cowboys secondary.
Initially Will Allen was supposed to be that player until J.J. Wilcox was ready. Wilcox took over the starting spot and showed promise, but a combination of injuries and regression led to Jeff Heath being inserted into the lineup.
Wilcox did show flashes and he very well may be the future at one of the safety positions, but overall, this position lacks some serious punch. Heath could serve as depth and a valued special teams player, the still-developing Wilcox is still very much in the mix, and then there is the Matt Johnson experiment.
Johnson could actually either be an ace in the hole or a just another example of Jerry Jones' failed draft picks. If he could only stay on the field, it would improve his chances. But the Cowboys need a playmaker back there, someone with range and the ability to cover and hit effectively.
Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be an option in the first round should the Cowboys place safety ahead of defensive line. He has excellent range and can cover. He would be a massive upgrade, but should the Cowboys choose to address safety later in the draft, there are other options as well.
Baylor's Ahmad Dixon and Florida State's Terrence Brooks could be targeted between the second and fourth rounds. Washington State's Deone Bucannon is another intriguing prospect and a big hitter who stands 6'1" and 216 pounds.
Adding a safety like Bucannon can change the entire attitude of the defense.
The Dallas Cowboys were hit hard with injuries in 2013, and none were bigger than the leg and neck ailments that sidelined Sean Lee. Add that to the disappointing season of Bruce Carter and the entire unit suffered even more.
At pivotal times during the season, Dallas had to rely on Cameron Lawrence, Orie Lemon and Martez Wilson to make plays, and that proved too much of an insurmountable task. The middle of the field became soft, opposing offenses attacked the flats and tight ends were hard to cover.
The Cowboys need depth and another player who can take on and shed blocks in the hole. You can never have enough playmakers on defense, or offense for that matter, but adding pieces to the front seven of this team cannot be stressed enough.
Stanford's Shayne Skov is a gritty, versatile inside linebacker skilled at diagnosing plays. Christian Jones of Florida State is a bigger player, but his ability to use his 6'4" frame to cover tight ends would give this Dallas defense a huge boost.
Alabama's C.J. Mosely is another high impact defensive player who could be of interest as well as University of Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. The 2014 draft is deep at the linebacker position, so the Cowboys will have plenty of options.
The Cowboys offensive line really showed vast improvement in 2013. Rookie Travis Frederick was a fixture at center; Tyron Smith is now an elite tackle, and the entire unit really came together. The result was running back DeMarco Murray enjoying his first 1,000-yard season.
Doug Free enjoyed a nice rebound season from a tough 2012, and Mackenzy Bernadeau was solid at guard filling in for Brian Waters, who was lost to a triceps injury.
So why is this a position of need? Because the time to further solidify this unit is when they are playing well and not when they are falling apart.
This is the draft to either select a young tackle to bookend with Smith, challenge Jeremy Parnell or create position flexibility. Miami's Seantrel Henderson, although a bit of a college disappointment, is a massive 6'7" tackle projected as a mid-to-late-round pick that Dallas could develop as a future contributor.
Tennessee's JuWaun James is also a big 6'6", 320-pound tackle who could fit what the Cowboys are looking for. He moves well laterally, locks on to defenders well and plays with sound fundamentals. He started 37 games in the SEC and played at a high level.
Should Dallas look at the interior of the offensive line, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson is a 6'4" 339-pound guard who plays with a nice combination of size and power, and he shows an ability to reach the second level of the defense.
Again, there are many options for the Cowboys in this position of need.
This may be a bit head scratching to some, but the Cowboys looking at a receiver makes a lot of sense. Forget about Miles Austin's contract for a minute, he is a shadow of the player he once was. He does not fight for the ball, nor does he play with the balance he used to display...he is just not making plays.
With cap constraints looming, cutting the veteran may already have been decided. But regardless, the Cowboys need someone to add to the mix with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris.
The Cowboys also need a vertical threat, as this offense is sorely lacking in downfield explosiveness.
I don't expect the Cowboys to use a high selection on a receiver, but this is a legitimate need. LSU's Jarvis Landry would be a nice complement to the receiving corps. He has a nice skill set of size, speed, solid hands and strength and the ability to get separation when running routes. He also plays special teams and returns kicks.
Nebraska's Jared Abbrederis is another solid prospect. He's 6'1" and has that deceptive quickness to get behind defenses. He's quick in small spaces but when you watch him on tape, he has those long strides that always seem to get him open.
Texas' Mike Davis, a Dallas native, could also be a mid-round target and a nice addition to this offense. When you watch Davis, his sure hands and burst jump out. He was a highly productive player who consistently made plays and tough catches.
There is really no position off the table for the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to ramping up this roster for the 2014 season. When you're stuck at 8-8, every position falls under a microscope. As the offseason continues and prospects are evaluated, priorities will shift.
Dallas' priorities should be on finding good football players.